Winter takes center stage

First of all, to all the loyal readers of OUTDOORS TODAY, thank you for your tips, sightings and interest in what the natural world has to offer.

Have a Happy New Year as 2016 opens a new page for all of us. Enjoy.

It is enjoyable to bring stories of natural history to you week after week. My review of submitted stories published during 2015 covers a wide array of subjects. Wildlife tends to get the nod more often than not. But any natural history subject is fair game for this scribe. And I use my intense interest in outdoor photography to help bring subjects to your attention, an excellent way to help bring the outdoor world to the back page of the T-R’s sports page.

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WOODCHUCKS or GROUNDHOGS are common critters. But how many people today actually see them? Not too many actually unless you live, work or recreate in the outdoors where these animals make their appearances. In general they like open farmland and surrounding wooded or brushy areas, near open pastures, along fence rows, stone walls, roadsides or near building foundations.

This animal is closely related to other species of North American marmots. Their coat is normally a grizzled grayish-brown that covers it 5 to 10 pound body. They are 16 to 20 inches long with a tail of four to seven inches. The compact chunky body is supported by its strong short legs. Long claws on its front feet are well adapted for digging burrows.

Being a rodent, its teeth are dominated by long incisors top and bottom. These chisel-like teeth continually grow and are kept sharp by the working action of the top teeth against the bottom teeth it is a good thing that hibernation slows its body to an almost standstill state so the teeth do grow too much before Spring weather wakes them up.

Woodchuck burrow can be a nuisance of a high degree if the animal decides to excavate a burrow under a garage floor for instance. Once a large amount of soil has been removed, it is virtually impossible for humans to refill the entire tunnel system. The tunnel network may go as low as five feet deep, and be eight to as long as 60 feet! Several ‘rooms’ allow for a sleeping chamber, a toilet area, and side tunnels to secondary escape holes. Other wildlife will use the tunnel if the woodchuck has abandoned a site. Rabbits, skunks and weasels will use old den systems.

Young woodchucks are born in late April after a 32-day gestation period. Litter sizes range from 2 to 6, commonly 4. They are born blind and hairless. They are weaned by late June or July. Soon after that, the young are on their own to eat, grow and escape, if they can, predators from the air or ground. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats and weasels pose threats from the ground. In the air hawks and owls are watching for anything to eat, including young woodchucks.

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The New Year 2016 will bring new opportunities and revisiting old issues involving conservation of natural resources. Society struggles to find balances for a myriad of issues. Conservation is just one aspect that has to be thoughtfully explored as our Iowa land, all 55,857.13 square miles, because those many square miles need to support us via its agricultural production, industries, and also allow for long term and diligent protection for those scenic and outdoor related places that most Iowans cherish. We all depend on natural resources to live. How we use them and protect them remains an important endeavor.

One of what this scribe calls the fickle finger of fate aspect for natural resources are the result of geological happenings eons ago. Our earth is pegged at 4.567 billion years old. The earth has seen it all … long before human kind ever existed. Changing plate tectonics resulted in large land masses spitting apart and rejoining numerous times. Subsiding earth plates ‘crashing’ into lighter materials have and continue to build huge mountain ranges. Numerous times in the past those once tall mountains have been eroded to small foothill status while the eroded material slowly washed out onto the plains. Oceans have come and gone leaving behind evidence of ancient life in the sea. Glaciers have ruled the earth numerous times and left evidence of their impact on the surfaces of mountains, plains and river courses. Fossil left clues in rock strata to tell us of past climates.

The Iowa we know today is a product of past geological events that were huge and powerful. Gravitational mechanisms within our solar system, and the powerful mood swings of the sun have caused glaciers to dominate numerous times and take pause numerous times as the earth warmed and recovered from the cold. Those natural mechanisms are still in play today. They take thousands of years to develop and thousands of years to recoup.

The problem with human life spans is that they are so short in comparison to geological time scales. What we may see on earth during a 100-year span is nothing compared to what has preceded us and what will happen after we are gone. But we live in the here and now. We must continue to do common sense things to protect and conserve natural resources in the larger scale and at the landscape level.

The landscape level is where we live, work, enjoy and strive to keep a balance for things wild and free. The geological events of Iowa’s past have left our landscape with scenic views and rough topographic areas where the best use of the land is preservation, conservation and the benefits it brings to native plant and wildlife. Glaciers sculpted and leveled a huge proportion of Iowa, thus preparing a base for the creation of rich soils that took many millennia to make.

Many of those areas are farmed today. And we build cities, road systems and all kinds of things on the one landscape we know as Iowa. Making intelligent choices will be an important goal during 2016 and every year into the future. Conservation is just one important piece of this puzzle. That is a good thing in my book.

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“Nature brings to every time and season some beauties of its own.”

– Charles Dickens

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.